Scholars Uma Karmarkar and Bryan Bollinger have conducted fascinating new research regarding reusable grocery bags. Through both empirical data from the field and experimental studies, Karmarkar and Bollinger discovered how shopping with reusable grocery bags influenced consumer behavior. Not surprisingly, they found that people tend to buy more organic foods when they shop with reusable bags. However, they discovered that these same consumers indulge more as well. While they might buy more organics, they also buy more ice cream, cookies, and the like.
Could reusable bags really affect people's behavior in this manner? Think about what might be going through our brains as we shop. It's almost as if we decide that we deserve a reward for helping the environment. We've done something good for the planet, so why not splurge and have a bowl of ice cream when I get home. Of course, that bowl of ice cream might not be very good for our health. Yet, we are not necessarily thinking about that damaging effect in the moment. Instead, we are looking to indulge as a reward for "good" behavior.
To me, the research reinforces the age-old law of unintended consequences. We might not ever imagine such a negative impact of shopping with reusable bags when we begin shopping with them. Yet, this unintended consequence emerges. Humans foil even the most well-intentioned schemes and systems. We behave in ways that are sometimes hard to predict in advance. We always have to remember the law of unintended consequences when we try to reshape human behavior.